BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
---- — NEWBURYPORT – City officials and local cultural leaders yesterday found themselves in the unusual position of having to “prove” that this city offers cultural resources and artistic opportunity.
Many recognize Newburyport to be a vibrant center of arts, music and literature but representatives of the Massachusetts Cultural Council were in town yesterday as part of its formal procedure to consider bestowing written recognition of this community as a “cultural district.”
Cultural Council members must make a formal recommendation before the city can be so recognized and thus Mayor Donna Holaday, Chamber of Commerce President Ann Ormond and City Councilor Allison Heartquist were among about a dozen who led the state “evaluators” on a tour of the downtown cultural sites.
They visited the Firehouse Center for the Arts, the Art Association headquarters, dance and voice studios in the Tannery, outdoor music venues and numerous shops and businesses.
Local leaders talked up the town as if explaining themselves to newcomers as they endeavored to advance the cause of cultural tourism.
Those who participated said there are benefits to being formally recognized.
Meri Jenkins, program manager for the Massachusetts Cultural District Initiative, said, “If Newburyport is approved as one of the state’s cultural districts, it will be part of our initiative to spread the word about the state. This city would be profiled in promotional material to Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and many other countries.”
As to the Cultural Council question of what makes the city unique, Jack Welch, representing the drama community, said, “Newburyport as a city shaped in part by its waterfront and its long maritime history.”
Mayor Donna Holaday added, “Another dimension that makes the city special is the preservation effort that went on to save the historic downtown. Many cities took down their old buildings but this city is recognized as among the first in the country to choose restoration as part of renewal.”
In a formal “stand and deliver” session after lunch at Not Your Average Joe’s on the waterfront, local arts leaders noted that the city hosts an annual film festival, a literary festival, a chamber music festival, as well as scores of art walks, music events, dramatic productions and historical lectures.
One Cultural Council member quipped, “This is great - why haven’t I been here before?” while another remarked enthusiastically, “I think I want to move here.”
Holaday, who championed the initiative for Newburyport to be designated as a Coast Guard City, commented, “This formal process helps us bring together the different arts groups in the city, and we can be more organized moving forward. We can better coordinate events, and we can benefit from the state recognizing us.”
Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, said that the cultural district program is only a few years old, and Newburyport, if successful, would be the 18th city in the state to be so designated.
The earliest that the city could learn of its inclusion in the program would be October.
“What we want to know is whether a community is authentic, attractive and would be a wonderful place to visit,” said Walker.
Local representatives of “culture” who interacted with the state evaluation team appeared certain that Newburyport is a community that qualifies.
Municipal representatives participating included Holaday, Heartquist, Ormond, Welch, Lois Honegger, administrator, Mayor’s Office of Arts, Tourism and Cultural Affairs; Elena Bachrach, director, Newburyport Art Association; David Hall, president, Hall and Moskow; Beth Falconer, managing director, Firehouse Center for the Arts; Geordie Vining, senior project manager, Newburyport Planning and Development; Marshal Thomas Howard, Newburyport Police Department; Steve Bradbury, deputy fire chief; and Paul Hogg, harbormaster.
Arts leaders involved in the “discussion among stakeholders” included Michael Mroz, director of the Custom House Maritime Museum; Shari Wilkinson, manager of the Farmer’s Market; Alan Bull, artist; Vicki Hendrickson, founder of the Literary Festival; Marc Clopton, principal of the Actor’s Studio; Julie Ganong, business owner, Chococoa Baking Co.; and Doug Locy, chair of the Waterfront Trust.